Transnationalism, Canadian Identity, and the Performance of Femininity in Elite Canadian Figure Skating

By McGarry, Karen | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Transnationalism, Canadian Identity, and the Performance of Femininity in Elite Canadian Figure Skating


McGarry, Karen, Women & Environments International Magazine


The Case of Joseé Chouinard

In 2002, a coach I interviewed proudly remarked that Joseé Chouinard, a popular Canadian figure skating champion and Olympian in the 1990s, embodied "the essence of a respectable Canadian girl." As Canada's second-ranked sport in terms of television spectatorship and advertising revenue, figure skating has always been imagined as an important part of Canadian pop culture and identity. This is especially true for the many Canadian women who comprise the majority of skating's spectator demographic. Drawing upon anthropological fieldwork among national and Olympic-level Canadian figure skaters, coaches, sponsors, and journalists conducted between 2000 and 2002, this article focuses on women's figure skating, with special emphasis on my informants' comments about Quebecoise skater, Joseé Chouinard.

Widely hailed as the 'epitome of femininity' and a proud Canadian, popular perceptions of Chouinard's Canadianness were contingent upon her adoption of white, upper-class Anglophone aesthetics, as well as the nostalgic imagery of former female Hollywood icons. Chouinard's image was often likened to that of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, and Canadians frequently regarded the consumption of Chouinard's image by American spectators as tangible proof of Canadian success. Ultimately, and ironically, the circulation and positive international reception of her image in international magazines, ice shows, and other transnational contexts (and especially American contexts) solidified her status as a valued Canadian 'at home.' In many ways, my informants' narratives provide an opportunity for an exploration of the ways in which Canadian identity discourses are dependent upon transnational flows and consumption, and the ways in which the cornmodification of particular images of both 'Canadianness' and 'femininity' converge.

Figure skating, much like other nationalist spectacles, represents an important arena for the construction of a sense of 'Canadian identity' that is partly dependent upon socially conservative, mainstream, and idealized images of skaters for public consumption. Within women's figure skating, skaters are expected to embody a socially appropriate, hegemonic form of femininity, manifested in such things as hairstyles, costumes, and overall demeanour and comportment. Interestingly, the production of a 'respectable' femininity is increasingly predicated upon the appropriation of particular images of race and class as well as the transnational, glamorized aesthetics of Hollywood.

In Canada, women's figure skating has not acquired the same level of status or recognition as men's skating. This is partly because male skating champions such as Toller Cranston, Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, and Elvis Stojko have won a plethora of international medals, World championships, and Olympic medals in recent years, making them household names throughout Canada. In contrast, few Canadian women have achieved the same level of international celebrity and achievement. Elizabeth Manley's 1988 Olympic and World silver medal wins were Canada's last medal victories for women at World Championship or Olympic games. As such, most Canadian female skaters do not acquire the same levels of international recognition or sponsorship opportunities as do their male counterparts. Nevertheless, there were a couple of Canadian female skaters who were nostalgically remembered by my informants and hailed as examples of 'Canadian' female champions. They served as role models for young skaters and were frequently commented upon by coaches and choreographers, who remembered them for their "beauty and femininity," as one coach described them.

Despite the cultural emphasis currently placed on men's singles skaters, however, female skaters are expected to embody a mainstream form of femininity as an index of a national icon. Barbara Ann Scott, the 1947-1948 World Champion and Olympic gold medallist, was often positioned as the supreme role model of both a sense of 'femininity' and "Canadianness. …

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